The Supremes in 1965. Left to right: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.
|Also known as||The Primettes; Diana Ross & the Supremes|
|Origin||Detroit, Michigan, United States|
|Genre(s)||R&B, pop, soul, disco|
|Associated acts||The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Martha & The Vandellas, Destiny's Child, En Vogue|
The Supremes, an American female singing group, were one of the signature acts on Motown Records during the 1960s. Originally founded as The Primettes in Detroit, Michigan in 1959, The Supremes' repertoire included doo-wop, pop, soul, Broadway show tunes, and disco. They were the most commercially successful of Motown's acts, with 12 of the group's singles peaking at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Most of these hits were written and produced by Motown's main songwriting and production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. At their peak in the mid-1960s, The Supremes rivaled The Beatles in worldwide popularity, and their success made it possible for future African-American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.
Founding members Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown, all from the Brewster-Douglass public-housing project in Detroit, formed The Primettes as the sister act to The Primes (with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who would go on to form The Temptations). Barbara Martin replaced McGlown in 1960, and the group signed with Motown the following year as The Supremes.
During the mid-1960s, The Supremes achieved mainstream success with Ross as lead singer. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross & The Supremes and replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong. Ross left to pursue a solo career in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell, at which point the group's name returned to The Supremes. After 1972, the lineup of The Supremes changed more frequently. The Supremes disbanded in 1977 after an 18-year run.
In 1958, Florence Ballard—a junior high student living in the Detroit Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects—met Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, two members of a Detroit male singing group known as The Primes. Since Ballard sang, as did Paul Williams' girlfriend Betty McGlown, The Primes's manager Milton Jenkins decided to create a sister group to The Primes called The Primettes. Ballard recruited her best friend Mary Wilson, who in turn recruited classmate Diane Ross. Mentored and funded by Jenkins, The Primettes began by performing hit songs by artists such as Ray Charles and The Drifters at sock hops, social clubs, and talent shows around the Detroit area. Receiving additional guidance from group friend and established performer Jesse Greer, the quartet quickly earned a local fan following. The girls crafted an age-appropriate style that was inspired by the collegiate dress of popular doo-wop group Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers; and, for the most part, Ballard, Ross, and Wilson performed equal leads on songs. Within a few months, guitarist Marvin Tarplin was added to The Primettes' lineup—a move that helped distinguish the group from Detroit's many other aspiring acts by allowing the girls to sing live as opposed to lip-synch.
After winning a prestigious, local-talent contest, The Primettes' sights were set on making a record. In hopes of getting the group signed to the local upstart Motown label, in 1960 Ross asked an old neighbor, Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson, to help the group land an audition for Motown executive Berry Gordy, Jr., who had already proven himself a capable songwriter. Robinson liked the girls and agreed to help, but he liked their guitarist even more; with The Primettes' permission he hired Tarplin, who became the guitarist for The Miracles. Robinson arranged for The Primettes to audition a cappella for Gordy—but Gordy, feeling the girls too young and inexperienced to be recording artists, encouraged them to return upon graduating from high school. Undaunted, later that year The Primettes recorded a single for Lupine Records (a label created just for them) entitled "Tears of Sorrow," which was backed with "Pretty Baby." The single, however, failed to find an audience. Shortly thereafter, McGlown became engaged and left the group. Local youth Barbara Martin was McGlown's quick replacement.
Determined to leave an impression on Gordy and join the stable of rising Motown stars, The Primettes frequented his Hitsville, U.S.A. recording studio every day after school. Eventually, they convinced Gordy to allow them to contribute hand claps and background vocals for the songs of other Motown artists including Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. In January 1961, Gordy finally relented and agreed to sign the girls to his label—but under the condition that they change the name of their group. The Primes had by this time combined with Otis Williams & The Distants and would soon sign to Motown as The Temptations. Gordy gave Ballard a list of names to choose from that included suggestions such as "The Darleens," "The Sweet Ps," "The Melodees," "The Royaltones," and "The Jewelettes." Ballard chose "The Supremes," a name that Wilson and Ross initially disliked as they felt it too masculine. Nevertheless, on January 15 the group signed with Motown as The Supremes. In the spring of 1962, Martin left the group to start a family. Thus, the newly named Supremes continued as a trio.
Between 1961 and 1963, The Supremes released eight singles, none of which charted in the Top-40 positions of the Billboard Hot 100. Jokingly referred to as the "no-hit Supremes" around Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. offices, the group attempted to compensate for their lack of hits by taking on any work available at the studio. During these years, all three members took turns singing lead: Wilson favored soft ballads; Ballard the soulful, hard-driving songs; and Ross more mainstream pop songs. Berry Gordy did believe that a leading voice like Mary's or Diana's would be better for them, but continued to let them share leads. Most of their early material was written and produced by Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson. In December 1963, the single "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes" peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"Lovelight" was the first of many Supremes songs written by the Motown songwriting and production team known as Holland-Dozier-Holland. In late 1963, Gordy made Diane Ross, now going by "Diana," the official lead singer of the group, as he felt her voice's distinctive, nasal quality would help the group appeal more to white audiences. Ballard and Wilson were periodically given solos on Supremes albums, and Ballard continued to sing her solo number, "People," in concert for the next two years.
In the spring of 1964, The Supremes recorded the single "Where Did Our Love Go." The song was originally intended by Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Marvelettes, who rejected it. Although The Supremes disliked the song, the producers coerced them into recording it. In August 1964, while The Supremes toured as part of Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, "Where Did Our Love Go" reached number one on the U.S pop charts, much to the surprise and delight of the group. It was also their first song to appear on the UK pop charts, where it reached number three.
"Where Did Our Love Go" was followed by four consecutive U.S. number-one hits: "Baby Love" (which was also a number-one hit in the UK), "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "Back in My Arms Again." "Baby Love" was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording, and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" was awarded the 1966 Grammy for Best Pop Single.
The Supremes became the first black female performers of the rock era to embrace a more feminine image. Much of this was accomplished at the behest of Motown chief Berry Gordy and Maxine Powell, who ran Motown's in-house finishing school and Artist Development department. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ross sang in a thin, calm voice, and her vocal styling was matched by having all three women embellish their femininity instead of imitate the qualities of male groups. Eschewing plain appearances and basic dance routines, The Supremes appeared onstage in detailed make-up and high-fashion gowns and wigs, and performed graceful choreography created by Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins. Powell told the group to "be prepared to perform before kings and queens." Gordy wanted The Supremes, like all of his performers, to be equally appealing to black-and-white audiences, and he sought to erase the image of black performers as being unrefined or lacking class.
By 1965, The Supremes were international stars. They toured the world, becoming almost as popular abroad as they were in the U.S. Almost immediately after their initial number-one hits, they recorded songs for motion picture soundtracks, appeared in the 1965 film Beach Ball, and endorsed dozens of products, at one point having their own brand of bread. By the end of 1966, their number-one hits included "I Hear a Symphony," "You Can't Hurry Love," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On." That year, the group also released The Supremes A' Go-Go, which became the first album by an all-female group to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard 200.
Because The Supremes were popular with white audiences as well as with black ones, Gordy had the group cater to its middle-American fan base by grooming the women for performances at renowned supper clubs such as the Copacabana in New York. Broadway and pop standards were incorporated into their repertoire alongside their own hit songs. As a result, The Supremes became one of the first black musical acts to achieve complete and sustained crossover success. Black rock-and-roll musicians of the 1950s had seen many of their original hit tunes covered by white musicians, with these covers usually achieving more fame and sales success than the originals.
The Supremes' success, however, counteracted this trend. Featuring three group members who were marketed for their individual personalities (a move unprecedented at the time) and Diana Ross’s pop-friendly voice, The Supremes broke down racial barriers with rock-and-roll songs underpinned by R&B stylings. The group became extremely popular both domestically and abroad, becoming one of the first black musical acts to appear regularly on television programs such as Hullabaloo, The Hollywood Palace, The Della Reese Show, and, most notably, The Ed Sullivan Show, on which they would go on to make 17 appearances. The Supremes' cross-cultural success effectively paved the way for the mainstream success of contemporaneous label mates such as The Temptations, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5.
Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in early 1968 after a dispute with the label over royalties and profit sharing, and the quality of Motown's output (and Diana Ross & The Supremes' records in particular) began to falter. From "Reflections" in 1967 to "The Weight" in 1969, only six out of the 11 released singles reached the Top 20, and only one of those, 1968's "Love Child," made it to number one. Due to the tension within the group and stringent touring schedules, neither Mary Wilson nor Cindy Birdsong appear on many of these singles; they were replaced on these recordings by session singers such as The Andantes. The changes within the group and their decreasing sales were signs of changes within the music industry. The gospel-based soul of female performers like Aretha Franklin had eclipsed The Supremes' pop-based sound, which had by now evolved to include more middle-of-the-road material. In a cultural climate now influenced more than ever by countercultural movements such as the Black Panther Party, The Supremes found themselves attacked for not being "black enough," and lost ground in the black music market.
In mid-1968, Motown initiated a number of high-profile collaborations for The Supremes with their old colleagues, The Temptations. Besides the fact that both groups had come up together, the pairings made financial sense: The Supremes had a mostly white fanbase, while The Temptations a mostly black fanbase. By 1969, the label began plans for a Diana Ross solo career. A number of candidates—most notably Syreeta Wright—were considered to replace Ross. After seeing 24-year-old Jean Terrell perform with her brother Ernie, Gordy decided on Ross' replacement. Terrell was signed to Motown and began recording the first post-Ross Supremes songs with Wilson and Birdsong during the day, while Wilson and Birdsong toured with Ross at night. At the same time, Ross began to make her first solo recordings. In November 1969, Ross' solo career was publicly announced.
"Someday We'll Be Together" was recorded with the intent of releasing it as the first solo single for Diana Ross. Desiring a final Supremes number-one record, Gordy instead had the song released as a Diana Ross & The Supremes single, despite the fact that neither Wilson nor Birdsong sang on the record. "Someday We'll Be Together" hit number one on the American pop charts, becoming not only the Supremes' twelfth and final number-one hit, but also the final number-one hit of the 1960s.
Diana Ross & The Supremes gave their final performance on January 14, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. After the Frontier Hotel performance, Ross officially began her career as a solo performer. Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong continued working with Jean Terrell on the first post-Ross Supremes album, Right On.
The Terrell-led Supremes—known unofficially at first as "The New Supremes," and in later years informally called the "70's Supremes"—scored hits including "Up the Ladder to the Roof" (U.S. number 10, UK number six), "Stoned Love" (U.S. number seven, UK number three), and "Nathan Jones" (U.S. number 16, UK number five), all of which were produced by Frank Wilson. These three singles were also R&B Top-Ten hits, with "Stoned Love" becoming their last number-one hit in December of 1970. Songwriting/production team Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson produced another Top-20 hit for the group, a Supremes/Four Tops duet version of Ike & Tina Turner's "River Deep - Mountain High."
In 1972, The Supremes had their last Top-20 hit single release, "Floy Joy," written and produced by Smokey Robinson, followed by the final U.S. Top-40 hit for the Jean Terrell-led version of the group, "Automatically Sunshine" (U.S. number 37, UK number 10). "Automatically Sunshine" later became the group's final top-10 single in the UK. Motown, by then moving from Detroit to Los Angeles to break into motion pictures, put only limited effort into promoting The Supremes' new material, and their popularity and sales began to wane.
This final version of The Supremes released two albums in 1976, both of which reunited The Supremes with Holland-Dozier-Holland: High Energy, which features Birdsong on all of the tracks, and Mary, Scherrie & Susaye. During that year, The Supremes released "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking," their final Top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and their third number-one single on the disco singles chart.
On June 12, 1977, The Supremes performed their farewell concert at the Drury Lane Theater in London and disbanded.
In 2000, plans were made for Ross to join Wilson and Birdsong for a planned "Diana Ross & the Supremes: Return to Love" reunion tour. However, Wilson and Birdsong both passed on the idea, because while the promoters offered Ross $15 million to perform, Wilson was offered $3 million and Birdsong less than $1 million. Eventually, the "Return to Love" tour went on as scheduled, but with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence joining Ross, although none of the three had ever been in the group at the same time and neither Payne nor Laurence had sung on any of the original hit recordings that they were now singing live. Former Supreme Susaye Greene was also considered for this tour, but refused to audition for it. The public and music critics cried foul and were disappointed by both this and the shows' high ticket prices. Thus, after playing only half of the dates on the itinerary, the tour was canceled.
The Supremes were twice nominated for a Grammy Award—for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording ("Baby Love," 1965) and Best Contemporary Rock & Roll Group Vocal Performance ("Stop! In the Name of Love," 1966)—but never won an award in competition. Three of their songs have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame: "Where Did Our Love Go" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (both 1999) and "Stop! In the Name of Love" (2001). The group' songs "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "You Can't Hurry Love" are among The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994, and entered into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the group at number 97 on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time." The Supremes are notable for the influences they have had on the black girl groups who have succeeded them in popular music, such as The Three Degrees, The Emotions, The Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, TLC, Destiny's Child, and Cleopatra.
Several fictional works have been published which are based in part on the career of the group. The 1976 film Sparkle features the story of a Supremes-like singing trio called "Sister & the Sisters" from Harlem, New York. The film's score was composed by Curtis Mayfield and the soundtrack album by Aretha Franklin was a commercial success.
On December 21, 1981, the Tony Award-winning musical Dreamgirls opened at the Imperial Theater on Broadway and ran for 1,522 performances. The musical, loosely based on the history of The Supremes, follows the story of The Dreams, an all-female singing trio from Chicago, Illinois who become music superstars. Several of the characters in the play are analogues of real-life Supremes/Motown counterparts, with the story focusing upon the Florence Ballard doppelgänger Effie White. While influenced by the Supremes' and Motown's music, the songs in the play are a broader mix of R&B/soul and Broadway music. Mary Wilson loved the musical, but Diana Ross was reportedly angered by it and refused to see it.
A film adaptation of Dreamgirls was released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures in December 2006. The film contains more overt references to Motown and The Supremes than does the play that inspired it: for example, in the film, many of the Dreams's album covers are identical in design to Supremes album covers, and the Dreams themselves hail from Detroit—not Chicago, as do their Broadway counterparts.
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